"Natural" Dog Food Explained

Vegan Amy Rader knows her dog, Henry, needs meat protein, but she hates the possibility that chemically processed additives are going into her 5-year-old beagle’s food. The new “natural” label on pet foods -- and what that precisely means -- has also puzzled the Seattle-based social worker. “It’s similar to buying organic for myself,” explains Rader. “A lot of words that sound pretty good are on the packaging, but I’m not always sure exactly what they mean, and I end up spending way too long in the pet store.”

Dr. Katy Nelson, DVM, an emergency veterinarian in Virginia, suggests that Rader try a different approach when selecting a dog food. “Do your research before you go to the pet store,” Dr. Nelson advises. “Labels are confusing. I’ve spent hours lecturing about them to veterinary students, and even they still have questions when I’m done!”

Below, Dr. Nelson explains current industry standards for natural kibble, and weighs in on whether this food is right for your pet.

What the USDA Says
Believe it or not, the federal government has taken an interest in protecting pet food consumers from misleading claims. Like food for humans, food for dogs must adhere to the United States Department of Agriculture’s definitions of “natural.” According to the USDA, a food can only be labeled “natural” if it is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients or added colors.

Minimally processed can be fine, but sometimes that means it has no preservatives, so you need to be careful with expiration dates.” If it’s preservative-free, buy less of it. Ideally, you’d choose a food that contains natural preservatives like vitamin C and vitamin E rather than no preservatives at all.

What AAFCO Says
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides a more specific description of the labeling requirements, adding that chemically synthesized ingredients may not be present in vittles claiming to be natural. Two common chemically synthesized ingredients in pet foods are propylene glycol and BHA. They both must be listed as ingredients on the labels of pet foods that contain them.

What the Veterinarian Recommends
While Dr. Nelson sees the value in natural pet foods, she also advises dog owners to proceed with caution, keeping the following guidelines in mind:

  • Remember that “natural” is not the same as “complete and balanced.” Make sure any pet food you select has conducted AAFCO-endorsed feeding trials or satisfied AAFCO’s dog food nutrient profiles.
  • When choosing a food, give your furry friend’s health issues top priority. “You can find natural foods that also address some common health problems like weight and joint trouble, but you may have to look a little harder,” says Dr. Nelson.  
  • Talk to your veterinarian before choosing any diet for your dog. “Don’t rely on the 16-year-old stock boy to help you decide what your dog should eat,” advises Dr. Nelson.
  • Don’t make a good deal your top priority. “The most expensive brands are not necessarily the best, but quality of ingredients -- natural or otherwise -- does tend to increase with price,” concludes Dr. Nelson.

After consulting Henry’s veterinarian, Amy Rader found a natural food that satisfied her concerns. It also seems to be satisfying Henry’s. “He gobbles it up,” she says. “So I guess we both feel good about it.”

Is It a Good Batch or a Bad Batch?

Recently, I noticed my pets reacting differently to their breakfast each morning, even though I continued to feed them the same flavor of chow from the same manufacturer. The brand and label didn’t change, and yet some mornings my furry pals gobbled up everything in a flash, while other days they were less enthusiastic, looking at me as if they were thinking, “The chef must have had an off day.”

This led me to wonder if some manufacturers varied what they put in their pet food. After investigating the issue, I discovered there are “fixed” formulas and “least-cost” formulas. A least-cost formula means that dog food recipes may fluctuate with cost. “The least-cost formulation could certainly explain the finickiness of many animals,” says Katy Nelson, DVM, a Virginia-based emergency veterinarian.

Least-cost Formula Dog Food
Nelson likens the practice to human food preparations. “Usually the things that cost the most are the most desirable, like filet mignon. So if a company is scrimping on the cost of the food, they’re likely to leave out or decrease the level of something that would greatly enhance the palatability, as it is likely to cost the most to add.”

Rebecca Rose, CVT, and a career advisor for the Colorado Association of Certified Veterinary Technicians, suggests the bad economy and a desire for greater profit could be to blame. “As with many companies around the world, [some pet food manufacturers] are pinching pennies and cutting their overhead or decreasing their services,” Rose explains. “When it comes to pet owners and pet foods, it’s buyer beware! Companies may be cutting costs, decreasing the percentage of quality ingredients even in pet foods.”

Fixed-formula Dog Food
In contrast, fixed-formula dog food has a “stable ingredient profile.” This means the recipes don’t fluctuate with the cost of the ingredients. The proportions of those ingredients remain the same regardless of cost.

“Reputable, quality pet foods will post their percentages, meet federal regulations and provide consistent delivery of a safe product,” Rose says. Both she and Nelson emphasize the importance of a company’s adherence to the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requirements. Nelson explains that AAFCO requires a company to put on its labels a “Guaranteed Analysis” of ingredients, meaning that any sample of the food must, at minimum, have the guaranteed levels of vitamins, minerals and more.

Ingredients must also be listed on the dog food label in the order of most to least amount included. “So if you pick up a bag of pet food and you see a vegetable-based protein (glutens) in the top few ingredients, it’s time to keep moving down the aisle!” Nelson advises.

Fixed-formula Benefits
Aside from making mealtimes more pleasurable for your pet, feeding a fixed-formula food offers your dog numerous benefits:

  • Nutritional consistency Your dog will always receive the same level of nutrition.

  • Flavor constancy The odor, taste and appearance of the food remains the same.

  • Value With a fixed-formula dog food, you get what you pay for instead of hidden fillers that may offer little nutrition to your pet.

  • Trust When a manufacturer adheres to a fixed-formula policy, you can trust that the company values your pet’s health and safety, even over monetary considerations. So when the economy takes a nosedive, you don’t have to worry about what you’re feeding your canine friend.

In the long run, choosing a fixed-formula food helps to maintain your dog’s health too. “As an emergency veterinarian, I think that having a fixed formula is essential,” says Nelson, who mentions that the chance of having a GI upset from different ratios of ingredients is greatly increased with variable formulas. The digestive enzymes and the normal flora of the GI tract are able to adjust to new things, but they need time to do so. This wouldn’t be such a concern with a fixed-formula food.

Making the Right Choice
Run an Internet search to see if your manufacturer adheres to a fixed-formula policy. Rose also strongly recommends reading the information posted on the bags of pet food and comparing the lower-cost foods to the premium foods. The process takes just seconds and could make a difference in your pet’s life.

Support Your Puppy's Growth

When New York City resident Diana Lambert was readying her home for her soon-to-arrive dachshund puppy, food was often on her mind. “She was just being weaned, and I wondered how I was ever going to give her as much in terms of nutrition as her mother had,” remembers Lambert. “I was going to be responsible for this little living creature, and I wanted to make sure she was getting everything she needed to grow up healthy.”

According to Dr. James Cook, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, Lambert needn’t have been too concerned. A quick trip to her local pet store to pick up a puppy-specific formula could have saved the day. Says Dr. Cook: “The pet food companies do a remarkable job with products that address overall nutrition. The science that goes into commercial pet foods these days is remarkable. It’s great as a veterinarian because it makes advising our clients what to feed that much easier.” Here’s what the perfect puppy food should contain, and everything that your pup needs to grow into a healthy dog:

The Basics
A puppy needs up to twice as many calories per pound as an adult dog. That’s why feeding a food especially formulated for pup needs is key. “Puppy diets support growth,” says Dr. Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists. Too much growth, though, isn’t necessarily a good thing. “We don’t care how rapidly small-breed dogs grow, but we do want to slow down the growth of large-breed dogs because rapid growth puts them at risk for orthopedic problems [difficulty with the skeletal system or associated muscles, joints and ligaments] down the line.”

Choosing the right formula, then, becomes not only about age but also about size. Look for small-, large- and giant-breed puppy foods on pet store shelves. And go in armed with the following knowledge: A small-breed pup is one that will reach up to 20 pounds at maturity, while large- and giant-breed puppies are those that will ultimately reach 50 and 90 (or more) pounds respectively. Ask your veterinarian or breeder if you are unsure about your dog’s future goal weight.

Beyond the Basics
Puppies need a high-quality source of protein. The first ingredient listed on the product’s label should be a straightforward protein source, such as chicken. Try to avoid foods with artificial preservatives, as they may be harmful to dogs over time.

Growing dogs also require a whole host of essential vitamins and nutrients, but that doesn’t mean you should start stocking up on canine vitamin supplements. According to Dr. Sally Perea, veterinary nutritionist and professor at the University of California, Davis, a commercial food with an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) seal of approval will keep your furry friend vitamin-rich. “Complete and balanced commercial dog foods provide the needed vitamins and minerals, so additional supplementation is not needed,” she says.

Another important ingredient for your new love? The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in fish and vegetable oils. “[Omega-3] is especially essential for puppies, because these fatty acids are important for normal brain and retinal development. [Omega-6] is important for skin and coat health,” notes Dr. Perea.

When and How
Of course, once you’ve chosen a formula for your puppy, the next thing you have to do is feed it. Your little one should be fed between three and four meals a day until it is at least 8 months old. Consistency of both time and location are important. Your pup should be fed in a cool, dry area that is ideally free of foot traffic -- especially of the young child variety. Choose a ceramic dish over a plastic one, as plastic can breed bacteria. The dish should ideally be cleaned daily or even after each meal. And fresh water should be available 24-7.

One last thing to remember: While puppies need a lot of food, they don’t need too much food. According to Dr. Joyce, obesity is a growing problem in dogs, and it’s easier to prevent than to fix. Follow the portion recommendations on the label of your dog’s food, and whatever you do, don’t get in the habit of feeding table scraps. “I’m pretty strict about not feeding people food to dogs,” says Dr. Joyce. “It contributes to obesity as well as other health problems.”

As for Diana Lambert’s dachshund, Frida, she appears to be thriving on her small-breed puppy kibble. “She gobbles up each meal in, like, two minutes,” says Lambert. “I think she must like it as much as what her mom used to make!”

Veterinarians Inspire New Dog Foods

At least 7.3 million dogs in the United States are 11 years of age or older, according to researchers at University of California, Davis. Since North American and European dogs have an average life span of 12.8 years, the numbers suggest that more canines than ever are reaching their senior years, likely pushing the life span limits ever upward. That’s a testament to how well we are caring for our pets, including the quality of the food we offer them each day. Health concerns are paramount in making such food choices. Just as these concerns now affect what we buy for ourselves, they influence what we purchase for our dogs, especially as they grow older, and health issues start to surface.

Therapeutic dog food formulas have been around, through veterinarians, for over 50 years, but now these foods are available “over the counter” at your local pet food stores, as well as from your veterinarian. Research on canine diseases, as well as nutritional innovations, have all improved over the decades and have made these types of condition-related formulas more effective and better than ever. Here, Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian Amy Dicke, DVM, who has been a member of teams consisting of nutritionists, researchers and veterinarians like herself that formulate new dog food products, explains what’s available now and how these new foods might benefit your dog.

Foods that Target Allergy, Skin and Coat Conditions
Does your dog scratch a lot, even when fleas and other parasites are under control? If so, your pet could suffer from food- or environment-related allergies similar to those that plague many people. If your veterinarian believes your dog may suffer from allergies or have other problems affecting its skin and coat, new therapeutic diets can help eliminate potential food allergens and provide itch relief.

Dr. Dicke explains, “These diets may contain a balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for normal skin structure and function. Research shows that manipulating the balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids can change inflammatory pathways and thereby reduce inflammation.” She also says that some of the new allergy diets contain hydrolyzed protein, which is protein broken down into small components that are not recognized as allergens in food-sensitive dogs.

Foods for Joint Health
Arthritis is a huge issue for dog lovers with aging pooches. This debilitating condition can change the structure and function of joint cartilage -- connective tissue that covers the ends of bones where they come together in a joint. It can result in reduced mobility and a lot of unbearable aches and pains.

New therapeutic dog foods formulated for joint health target these problems in a one-two-three punch, according to Dr. Dicke. The first pow to arthritis comes from glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, two known building blocks for cartilage. The second is the optimal omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio mentioned earlier. For joint issues, it “helps to manage inflammation,” she says. Finally, a compound known as L-carnitine optimizes your dog’s overall body condition and thereby minimizes stress on its joints.

Kidney Care Chow
Kidney disorders, also known as renal problems, are quite common in both cats and dogs, particularly as our pets grow older. If your dog has been diagnosed with chronic renal disease, it means that it has an irreversible loss of kidney function. While this may sound abysmal and hopeless, you can take heart now, since nutrition plays an important role in managing the condition.

“Appropriate nutritional support can improve the clinical signs through a special blend of fibers that assist the kidneys in removal of waste products from the body,” says Dr. Dicke. “Nutrition can also slow the progression of the disease through lowered phosphorous levels and an adjusted omega fatty acid ratio to reduce inflammation and hypertension.”

Foods for Good Intestinal Function
If your dog has been diagnosed with a gastrointestinal problem, such as irritable bowel syndrome, specialized nutritional support can come to its rescue. In all mammals, including humans, intestinal problems may involve an imbalance of bacteria within the intestines. When you eat yogurt, for example, recent studies suggest that its cultures can support your body’s bacterial balance, leading to better digestion.

Yogurt isn’t optimal for dogs, but new intestinal health dog foods are perfect for our canine buddies with known gastrointestinal problems. Dr. Dicke says they “can restore intestinal bacteria back to a normal balance, repair the intestinal lining, decrease inflammation and reduce the amount of unabsorbed nutrients.”

Weight Management Foods
According to Lisa Peterson of the American Kennel Club Humane Fund, up to 40 percent of all American dogs, numbering around 17 million, are hauling around excess weight that could predispose them to all sorts of health problems -- ranging from heart disorders to breathing difficulties. Similar to how we view our own bodies, many of us are in fat dog denial, Peterson believes. She says it’s difficult for owners “to see the reality that their own pet may be overweight or obese instead of just chubby or fluffy.”

Once your veterinarian has determined that your dog is overweight, special weight loss formula dog foods can help your furry friend to lose the excess pounds while still getting the right amount of daily nutrients, which minimize lean muscle loss. “Healthy weight is best achieved with low-fat, low-calorie, low-fiber diets that include special ingredients such as L-carnitine (the fat burner), increased levels of vitamin A to fight against weight retention, and a blend of carbohydrates that promote a healthy blood sugar level and satiety.”

Therapeutic Dog Food Dos and Don’ts

  • Do make sure your veterinarian has properly diagnosed your dog before considering feeding your pet a therapeutic dog food. Special health formula dog foods are meant for dogs with known medical conditions.
  • Don’t mix and match the foods, as that wouldn’t optimize the nutritional therapy for the particular condition. If your dog suffers from more than one problem -- let’s say it is overweight and has joint problems -- consider the severity of each condition and choose to target just one with the food. Consult with your veterinarian to make this determination.
  • Do feed as directed by your veterinarian and the manufacturer. Usually the amounts and feeding schedules are comparable to those recommended for regular dog foods.
  • Don’t give your dog one of these foods in the hopes that it will prevent the particular health problem from surfacing in the first place. The diets may be restricted in certain nutrients below the minimal level required for usual healthy maintenance.

If fed correctly, veterinarian-inspired and formulated dog foods may be just what the doctor ordered for your dog. Given the continued innovations in pet medicine and dog nutrition, it’s likely that our canine friends will grow ever older with us, providing us all with more quality time together.

Pop Quiz: Is Your Dog Eating Properly?

A fast-growing, toy-chasing puppy has different nutritional needs than a slumber-loving, slow-trotting older dog. Feeding your three-month-old meals meant for its elders could mean puppy’s not getting the right amount of calories or nutrition. When the problem is reversed, older dogs could consume too many calories, leading to paunchy pooches. According to the National Academies’ National Research Council, an obesity epidemic now exists among dogs and cats, so we need to better match foods to the needs of our pets.

Keep in mind that your dog will have different nutritional requirements at various stages within its lifetime. Given these fluctuating requirements, how can you best meet the breed- and stage-specific nutritional needs of your best canine friend? Here, The Dog Daily asks veterinarian Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists for answers to the most important food-related doggie dilemmas.

Puppies need more calories than adult dogs.

TRUE Puppies are growing rapidly, especially in the first months, and this requires the higher caloric intake of specially formulated puppy food,” says Dr. Joyce. A diet with antioxidants like Vitamin E also helps to support the health of the developing immune system, and may improve your little love’s response to vaccinations.

Puppies are puppies. Large and small breeds can safely eat the same food.

FALSE “All puppy diets support growth,” says Dr. Joyce. “However, breed size does matter.” While small breed dogs can safely grow very quickly, the same is not true for large breed dogs. “To prevent orthopedic issues (such as disorders of the skeletal system and associated muscles, joints and ligaments), we try to slow down their growth.” To feed a small-breed puppy food to a large breed puppy is to put it at risk for hip dysplasia, a gradual loosening of the hip joint that can ultimately be crippling, and other malformation problems. Joint protective agents can be important for large-breed little ones.

The biggest health issue for today’s adult dogs is obesity.

TRUE “The food choices you make for your middle-aged dog largely have to do with whether or not it’s overweight,” says Dr. Joyce. “Owners should always be thinking about preventing obesity, and weight-control formulas can help with this.” Your veterinarian can monitor your dog’s weight, but you can also keep an eye on your canine’s physique. You should be able to feel your dog’s spine and ribs, and see a noticeable waist between the rib cage and hips from above.

Once puppyhood ends, large and small breeds can eat the same foods for optimal health.

FALSE Large-breed dogs should be fed a large-breed diet, says Dr. Joyce. For large-breed dogs, a diet that includes cartilage building-blocks, like glucosamine, can help maintain healthy joints and cartilage.

Male and female dogs have different nutritional needs.

FALSE “This is false, with one exception,” says Dr. Joyce. “Pregnant and lactating females need more calories.” You can provide this extra energy by feeding your pregnant or nursing dog puppy chow. However, make sure it’s small-breed puppy chow, whether or not your dog is small. It is higher in calories than the large-breed puppy equivalent.

Senior-specific diets should be fed after a dog reaches the decade mark.

FALSE “I’m a broken record, but it depends on the breed,” says Dr. Joyce. Veterinarians generally say that dogs in the last third of life are seniors. Larger breeds tend to have shorter life spans, so they may be considered senior as early as six years old, while smaller dogs are not generally considered seniors until 10. New research also shows that a higher-protein diet can also be beneficial for senior dogs. Your veterinarian can tell you whether it’s time to start Rover on a senior meal plan.

You can prevent the common health problems of older dogs by feeding your dog an issue-specific diet -- like a food for dogs with kidney problems -- before your dog is diagnosed.

FALSE “You shouldn’t feed a health-specific diet until a condition has been diagnosed,” says Dr. Joyce. Preventative diets focus on the general health of a dog, its weight and joint health, rather than on specific conditions. That being said, weight-control and joint-health formulas are generally safe for older dogs. There are many maturity foods on the market. Again, breed size should be a consideration in choosing these meal plans.

Though canine health food information may be harder to come by than the human variety, what you learn can go a long way toward helping your pet. With just a bit of dog food nutritional savvy, feeding your canine companion for optimal health is as easy as scooping out a serving of dog chow.